Election Section

‘Love’ staging can’t completely overcome clichés

By John Angell Grant Daily Planet Correspondent
Friday April 27, 2001

Fifty women, forced to marry when they don’t want to, turn the tables and murder their grooms during a bloody wedding ceremony in Charles Mee’s bizarre comedy “Big Love,” which opened Wednesday in a strong production at Berkeley Repertory Theater. 

Mee’s play was the big hit last year at Louisville’s Humana Festival, the most important annual staging of new plays in the country. 

“Big Love” is based loosely on Greek playwright Aeschylus’ fifth century drama “The Suppliant Women,” thought by some to be the oldest surviving play in the western world. 

In the original story, 50 women are forced against their will to marry their cousins. Before the weddings occur, however, the women escape to a foreign country and seek refuge.  

The king of that country initially helps them, but eventually buckles to political pressure, and supports the marriages. The women then plan the murder of the grooms. One woman backs out from the murders and marries her groom. 

Aeschylus’ original play was part of a trilogy, of which only the first play has survived. Legend indicates possible ways the story might have ended. 

Mee’s unusual update of this story plays in large part as a comedy. Set in present time, 50 brides arrive on the run from Greece, wearing slightly bedraggled wedding gowns and carrying their suitcases, at a palatial room in Italy that they initially believe to be part of a fancy hotel. 

They burst into song – Lesley Gore’s “You Don’t Own Me.” Then with the grooms soon in pursuit, angry bridal ringleader Thyona (K.J. Sanchez) rallies her sisters for a counterattack. 

The production starts wonderfully – colorful and funny. But after its first flash of unusualness, the story becomes a hodge-podge. The real art in this Berkeley Rep production is director Les Waters’ wonderful staging. Waters directed last year’s Humana Festival world premiere of the play. 

As far as the script goes, the dialogue and story verge on gender politics cliché. The characters are more types than individuals. 

The pack of 50 brides is represented principally by three – the angry woman (Sanchez), the blonde bimbo (Aimee Guillot), and the thoughtful woman (Carolyn Baeumier). 

Not speaking Greek, I can’t vouch for the original, but this contemporary American version is written without any poetry that may have existed in the original. 

The dialogue is filled with didactic speechifying and predictable gender politics rhetoric that sound very familiar. The three brides and the three grooms debate the differences between women and men. 

Groom Constantine (Mark Zeisler) emerges as a troglodytic right-wing soldier. He believes that "life is rape," ready to tie a woman to the bed and set her one fire with gasoline. At the play’s end, the trial by the murdering women of the one sister who decides to marry is especially sententious and gassy. 

The backwards and forwards anachronisms created by merging two different cultures and periods of time often don’t fit well together. 

The wedding, for example, doesn’t make sense in this modern retelling. Why are these modern, 21st century women – bright, resourceful, thoughtful, wealthy – trapped in these marriages? 

The merging of the two cultures forces the script into over-the-top-comedy, making the story cartoony, and undercutting its emotional subtext. 

The murders at the end don’t make sense for these modern characters, who have many more options in their lives than women from 5th century B.C. The killings seem more pathological than political. 

Having said all that, director Waters and his cohorts have created a very visual and sensual production in a script where there is a lot of room for director and actors to fill in the blanks. The sudden, stylized helicopter arrival of three soldier/grooms is an astonishing moment. 

There’s a wonderful scene early on where the three women suddenly fly into spasms of what it’s like to be beaten up by men, and how they can bounce back and survive it. 

Later, a parallel spasm of the three men – sort of a frustrated guy dance on what it’s like to be a man--evolves into professional wrestling choreography. The wedding scene near the end of the play quickly becomes a food fight, then an orgy, then a mass murder. 

There are many good performances. Carolyn Bauemier, shedding her bride’s dress and hopping nude into a bathtub on arriving in Italy at the top of the play, shows her comfort in  

her femaleness. 

Lauren Klein is riveting in two roles, first as a sleepy old Italian woman dressed in traditional black, talking about the joys of marriage, and the disappointments with her 13 sons. Later Klein shoes up as a dizzy party socialite, thrilled at the prospect of a wedding, in a sex-obsessed puritan way. 

Tony Speciale is outstanding as the homeowner’s gay nephew, enjoying his time with the brides who are fascinated by stories of his Ken and Barbie collection. J. Michael Flynn is wonderful in two roles – as the compromise-seeking homeowner, and later as a party Casanova. Scenic designer Annie Smart’s pink-and-blue, boys-and-girls drawing room veranda, and Robert Wierzel’s carnival of bright lighting explode a dazzling performance space. 

This might turn out to be a popular play for the p.c. set, but for me the mixing of two styles from two eras created a story in which the pieces didn’t fit together well. 

Planet theater reviewer John Angell Grant has written for “American Theatre,” “Backstage West,” “Callboard,” and many other publications. E-mail him at jagplays@yahoo.com.